25th November 2020

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Firms are stepping in to help remote and frontline workers alike deal with emotional strain


The city Department of Health has published mental health guides and updated the NYC Well referral service to help businesses navigate their options during the pandemic. Susan Herman, director of the Mayor’s Office of ThriveNYC, noted it is critical that the city’s employers prioritize mental health in the workplace. The agency offers technical assistance and free online resources to help businesses, she said.

Many organizations have sought to increase employee access to mental health providers.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority realized early that transit workers are subject to a lot of stress because they are on the front lines. It worked with its health plan, Aetna, to expand access to telemedicine, psychiatry and therapy, said Chris Lightbourne, director of member services at Transit Workers Union Local 100, which represents approximately 40,000 bus and subway workers.

Mount Sinai Hospital created the Center for Stress, Resilience and Personal Growth for its employees. It provides up to 14 free sessions of psychotherapy as well as workshops aimed at bolstering resilience.

Such efforts were sorely needed. The Kaiser Family Foundation 2020 Employer Health Benefits Survey, published in October, found that only 35% of firms said their network for mental health services was very broad in the number of providers offered Forty-six percent said they had a somewhat broad network, and 19% described theirs as somewhat narrow or very narrow. When seeking help, workers should not have to deal with the costs of visiting an out-of-network mental health provider, said Matthew Rae, associate director for the health care marketplace program at Kaiser and one of the study’s authors.

Firms have embraced tech solutions to boost well-being too. UI Path, a Midtown-based software company, in October began providing staff with free access to a meditation app as well as subscriptions to an audio-based fitness service.

“Studies have shown that staying physically active benefits mental health, and it’s great that technology has enabled us to tackle wellness on all fronts,” Gershon said.

Mount Sinai created its own app for employees and students in the health system that offers screening tools and workshops.

“This is about the time we expect to see a culmination of issues among staff, including post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression, and we’ve seen rapid downloads of our app,” said Dr. Deborah Marin, director of the Center for Stress, Resilience and Personal Growth.

National corporations including Starbucks and Target in recent months have opted for mindfulness, counseling and fitness apps as well, according to news reports.

Supporting workers also means supporting their home environment, noted Woodroffe. TIAA enhanced its child care benefits to $100 per day from $65 as well as instituted flexible hours for associates. There is a commonly accepted guideline for staff working remotely not to handle child care during work hours, Woodroffe said.

“But we’ve learned to adopt a radical flexibility where if an employee has to juggle work and meeting their children’s needs, they should be able to take the time to address it and not be apologetic about it,” he said.

Some businesses are also trying to account for the alone time remote workers have lost now that entire families are home together 24/7.

“Prior to COVID-19, we had time to ourselves that wasn’t work-related or home-related as we commuted,” Woodroffe said. A commute is now the distance between one’s bed and computer, he said. So TIAA implemented monthly healthy challenges for its employees and is encouraging them to take periodic breaks from their laptop. “We’re trying to re-create that downtime that is no longer easily accessible,” he said.

“We need to remind workers that these services are available and destigmatize the seeking of them,” Lightbourne said.

Communication has to come from multiple channels, starting from the top of the leadership chain on down, Gershon said.

“Letting people know they’re being cared for makes them more likely to reach out for the services available,” Marin said.

TIAA has held multiple forums for employees to voice concerns and stay abreast of developments during the pandemic. And Verizon Media, based in Greenwich Village, was reported to have launched a daily newsletter addressing issues of isolation, anxiety and stress.

“Just even being able to talk about mental health in the workplace makes a difference, and that openness had not been common pre-COVID-19,” Woodroffe said.

For Isola, Mount Sinai’s new center has helped her team. With the corporate resources in place to help them become better equipped to handle their trigger points, the spirit of feeling good about their work is more visible these days, she said.

“That brightness is coming back,” Isola said.

This story first appeared in our sister publication, Crain’s New York Business.


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